Growing Pains: The Trouble with the Multi-Generational Narrative in “It: Chapter 2”
As an existing intellectual property, and with considerable nostalgic love for the now somewhat dated 1980s mini-series starring Tim Curry as Pennywise, the release of IT in 2017 was likely never seen as that much of a risk. Yet the runaway success of the film caught many people by surprise. Directed by Andrés Muscietti, the adaptation of just half of Stephen King’s mammoth novel pulled in over US$700 million at the global box office against a budget of around US$35 million. There was little to no doubt that Warner Bros. would go ahead with the sequel and enable us to see the conclusion to the tale. Indeed, it had already been greenlit by the time the first film reached cinemas, enabling the title card at the end of the film to read as the longer name: IT CHAPTER ONE.
IT (or ‘Chapter 1’ as I shall refer to it from now on, to avoid confusion) tells the story of a group of kids who band together to defeat a creature which disguises itself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who goes around their hometown of Derry, Maine, stealing children. Each member of the group has their own individual problems: overbearing or even abusive parents, bullies, a missing (presumed dead) brother…
Something about the first film seemed to register with a larger audience; it wasn’t just horror fans like myself who went to see it. Even ‘normals’ ventured out to watch it too, in their droves. Word of mouth spread that this was a really good horror film. That it was fun, and emotional, and that perhaps it worked on more levels than some people might expect from your average horror. Certainly, the ‘Stranger Things effect’ may have had something to do with it. 80s nostalgia had seen a massive boom thanks to the likes of the Netflix show, itself fun, emotional and at times pretty scary, recreating that Amblin vibe that many of us grew up with. It’s surely little coincidence that one of Stranger Things’ main actors has a major role in the film (Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike in Stranger Things, and Richie in IT), and more often than not has the best, funniest lines.
Whilst the novel switches back and forth across timelines, jumping between the childhood friends and twenty-seven years later when the characters come back together to re-defeat It, Chapter 1 makes the seemingly wise decision to spend all of its 135 minutes running time with the children in the 1980s (updated from King’s original setting of 1957). This allows us to fully engage with the young characters, watching them learn, grow, become stronger and more confident in themselves as they face all of their horrific experiences. We see them develop from being Losers to Lovers and fighters. At the end of Chapter 1, the friends make a pact that if the creature returns to their town, they will return to defeat it. Together.
IT CHAPTER TWO (2019, also directed by Muscietti) jumps forward in time by 27 years and the creature has returned to Derry. All but one of the friends have left town and made their own lives elsewhere. Something about leaving Derry has caused them to forget everything that happened before – their past lives, their traumas, even their confrontation with It. Despite that, each of them has new, grown-up issues to contend with, including alcoholism and an abusive relationship. As they each in turn receive a call from Mike, the only member of the gang never to leave Derry, and therefore also the only one of them to remember everything, memories start slowly coming back and they remember the promise they made to one another.
What follows feels like something of a re-hash of Chapter 1, with some great, fun, set pieces, but focusing mostly on the ‘present’, with the older characters. While it’s a highly entertaining film that I very much enjoyed, all the way through I felt as though something was lacking. It was only once we’d had a number of flashbacks to the characters’ younger days that I realised quite what it was that was ‘wrong’: the more we spent time with those younger versions of the characters, the more I wanted to stay in that time period. There was nothing wrong with the acting of course, with the high calibre acting chops of Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James McAvoy et al. taking on the older roles, and there were a few genuinely creepy moments.
But the plot device of the characters forgetting everything that had gone before, but quite quickly remembering it all once again almost made them feel like brand new characters, rather than older versions of the characters we had watched grow up in Chapter 1. By necessity, the plot for Chapter 2 kicks in quickly, so we don’t have the opportunity to get to know these characters again. After fairly effective introductions to their adult lives, those lives are quickly tossed aside as they’re all drawn back to Derry because of their childhood promise.
As many others have pointed out, Chapter 1 is very much a coming of age story, not dissimilar to another King work, STAND BY ME (from his short story ‘The Body’), just with extra horror and terrifying clowns. We live with these characters are they work through their childhood traumas, some of which are likely relatable to the majority of people, others perhaps less so. We grow to care about them. To use screenwriting and film studies terminology, we see the characters go on a journey. We see their emotional arcs as they learn to grow in strength and confidence, ultimately defeating the bad guy at the end (albeit only for 27 years). On the other hand, we experience no real journey in Chapter 2: the characters exit their old lives, certainly, but they come straight back to a similar point at which we left them in Chapter 1.
That’s not to say that every horror film should see their main character(s) change, or go on an emotional journey. More often than not, just surviving the experience is a powerful enough journey to suffice. Think of the likes of HALLOWEEN (1978): Laurie Strode doesn’t have much of a character arc. Perhaps she grows in confidence: after being meek and timid at the beginning she learns to fight back against Michael Myers, but she also breaks down in tears at the end, having been effectively rescued by Dr Loomis. Have she changed as a person? Not especially (though, taking 2018’s HALLOWEEN into consideration, she emerges from the original film traumatised and alcoholic). Yet it’s still a superb film, and emotionally satisfying.
The trouble with Chapter 2 is that we’ve already had a highly effective, emotionally driven journey throughout Chapter 1. Going back and revisiting the child versions of those characters through flashbacks only helps to emphasise the fact that we’re more emotionally invested in their younger lives So, despite spending almost three hours as an on-the-whole solidly entertaining horror, it’s hard not to feel a little short changed. Perhaps it would work better to watch them one after the other as a double-bill. It certainly sounds a good excuse to do so once Chapter 2 is available to purchase anyway.
Images copyright their respective copyright holders.